by Joy Harjo
In the overwhelm of our digitally-oriented contemporary lives, we often lose our connection to the mythic, spiritual and concrete roles of animals and how they mean in our existence. Mvskoke people who know things, teach us that that we must be in balance with the animals or we will fall to sickness.
What I noticed about older Mvskoke men is a tenderness toward animals, an awareness of their dignity and humanity. My older cousin John Pershing Jacobs from Holdenville, Oklahoma was more like an uncle to me. I loved his stories of being in Italy during the war, family stories, and most of all, I loved the way he treated animals. He had a great respect for any animal we met on our path. Once he stopped the car and pulled over to move a turtle out of traffic’s reach. Before he set the turtle down, he showed me that the turtle had been eating wild strawberries. Its beak was stained red from berry juice. He talked to the turtle like a beloved relative. My cousin also had dogs, as do many community members. Dogs in native communities are guardians of life and property even as they are family members.
My first companion as a young child was our family dog, Lucky. She followed me everywhere, when I was a toddler, and made sure I didn’t get into trouble. I could not get anywhere near the street with Lucky standing guard. Lucky was alert, intelligent and loyal. We were lucky to have such a valiant family member.
I’ve heard many animal stories along the way, and one of my favorite was told to me by a Cherokee man, Robert Thomas, who taught at the University of Arizona and was an active member in his traditional community. I remember when he returned from a conference up north, carrying this story with him, told to him by the young man in the story:
A young man went camping with his dogs. It was just a few years ago, not long after the eruption of Mount St. Helens when white ash covered the northern cities, an event predicting a turning of the worlds. That night as he built a fire out of twigs and broken boughs, he remembered the thousand white butterflies climbing toward the sun when he had camped there the previous summer.
Dogs were his beloved companions in the land that had chosen him through the door of his mother. His mother taught him well, and it was she who had reminded him that the sound of pumping oil wells might turn him toward money. He and his dogs traveled out into the land, a land that remembered everything, including butterflies, and the stories that were told when light flickered from pots of grease.
That night as he boiled water for coffee and peeled potatoes, he saw a wolf walking toward camp on her hind legs. It had been a few generations since wolves had visited his people. The dogs were awed to see their ancient relatives and moved over to make room for them at the fire. The lead wolf motioned for her companions to come with her, and they approached humbly, welcomed by the young man who had heard of such goings-on, but they were rare since the churches had fought for their souls.
He did not quite know the protocol, but knew the wolves as relatives. He offered them coffee, store meat, and fried potatoes, which they relished in silence. He stoked the fire and sat quiet with them as the moon in the form of a knife for scaling fish came up and a light wind ruffled the flames.
The young man knew this meeting was unusual, and the lead wolf concurred. She then told the story of how the world had changed and could no longer support the purpose of life. Food was scarce, pups were being born deformed, and fences restricted their migrations, which were in essence, ceremony for renewal. The world as all life on earth knew it would end, but there was still time in the circle of hope to turn back the destruction. That’s why they had waited for him, called him here from the town a day away, over the rolling hills, from his job constructing offices for the immigrants.
They shared a smoke, and he took the story into his blood while the stars nodded their heads, while the dogs murmured their agreement.
“We can’t stay long,” the wolf said. “We have others with whom we must speak, and we haven’t much time.”
He packed the wolf people some food to take with them, some tobacco, and they prayed together for a safe journey. As the wolves left, the first flakes of winter began falling, covered their tracks. It was as if they had never been there.
The story burned in the heart of this human from the north, and he told it to everyone who would listen, including my Cherokee friend who told it to me one day over biscuits and eggs.
The story now belongs to you too, and as pollen on the legs of a butterfly is nourishment carried from one flower to another, this is an ongoing prayer for strength for us all.*
As I recall that story, my granddog Canté (which means “heart” in Lakota) is sleeping at my feet while my husband Owen (who has that same animal tenderness as my cousin/uncle) and his two children are out shopping. Canté is an alert protector of my stepdaughter and stepson, guards them and their house in Denver. With Canté next to them, I know they will be safe, and will also have a trustworthy companion on this path of life.
Maybe animals still remember that they are close to the heart of the Creator, while we two-legged humans wonder too far afield. Maybe we need them to remind us not to get too far away, or too close to the street of forgetfulness.
©Joy Harjo (Joy Harjo-Sapulpa) December 27, 2017
*From “Wolf Warrior”, A Map to the Next World, W.W. Norton 2000